Industrial disputes

Dealing with industrial disputes


If a dispute arises, you should meet with representatives of your workers to resolve the problem as soon as possible. Where you have agreed procedures to meet and discuss such matters with a recognised trade union or other representatives, these procedures should be followed.

The initial concerns of the meeting should be to:

  • define the actual cause of the dispute
  • clarify who speaks for each side
  • explore what options are available to resolve the dispute

In many cases this meeting, or negotiations that follow it, will resolve the dispute. However, if negotiations become deadlocked, it may be necessary to call in outside help, possibly from the Labour Relations Agency (LRA). Its services are free. Each party bears its own costs.

LRA collective conciliation

Collective conciliation is a voluntary process where the LRA conciliators attempt to help employers and employees (normally via trade unions) discuss their differences and reach mutually acceptable settlements of their collective disputes. Outcomes are not imposed or judgements made on the rights and wrongs of the matter in dispute.

The main issues referred for collective conciliation include annual pay reviews; other terms and conditions eg shift hours, bonuses, changes in working practices, redundancy selection; and trade union recognition. Collective conciliation is normally only appropriate when the parties have exhausted their own procedures, or they agree it's required.

LRA collective conciliation explained.

LRA mediation service

The mediation service focuses on restoring productive working relationships between individuals and/or groups where those have broken down. Mediation is delivered by the LRA in-house accredited workplace mediators. It is a free service. Mediation is especially suitable when the aim is to maintain the employment relationship. It is often most effective if used in the early stages of a dispute.

LRA mediation explained.

LRA arbitration service

The LRA offers the following arbitration services for industrial disputes:

  • Industrial arbitrations - these are arranged by the LRA in accordance with its statutory powers under Article 84 of the Industrial Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1992.  In accepting such arbitrations the Agency must be satisfied that any negotiating procedures have been exhausted or are unlikely to resolve the issue, and that the dispute cannot be settled by conciliation. This service is provided to employers and unions and, in exceptional circumstances, to individual employees.
  • Procedural arbitrations - these are where national or sectoral negotiating procedures provide for arbitration as the final stage in the procedures.

Industrial arbitration is also voluntary but the parties accept in advance to be bound by the arbitrator's resolution, made within agreed terms of reference for the arbitrator. The decision, however, is not legally binding (unlike the LRA Arbitration Scheme, which is legally binding).

The decision to go to arbitration may be ad-hoc, or may be an agreed stage in the parties' dispute resolution procedure.

LRA Arbitration and Independent Appeals.

Failure to resolve a collective workplace dispute

If you fail to resolve a dispute with a group of workers and/or their representatives, they may consider taking industrial action.

However, in order for such action to be lawful, it must meet a number of conditions. See lawful industrial action.